One of the first things you notice when DJ, composer, producer, drummer and laptop musician Maga Bo opens the door of his modest top floor apartment in Rio de Janeiro is that there is not one whiff of ex-pat to him. Though he is Seattle-born and raised, one doesn’t imagine him glued to CNN quaffing cheeseburgers or cheering in front of the Super Bowl. His mellow Carioca vibe even extends to his conversation. His English has different phrasing, the extended or shortened vowels in some words. It’s quite obvious he speaks more Portuguese than English these days. Even his name is transglobal: Maga Bo – meaning “skinny Bo” in Jamaican patois – a nick-name he was given in Jamaica. It’s crystal clear that he feels perfectly at home in other cultures with the ability not only absorb them, but to be equally absorbed into them. Last year Bo released Quilombo Du Futuro: traditional rural roots music grafted onto urban rhythms and midwifed by a DJ raised on a diet of dub, reggae and hip hop. Maga Bo is an eternal student of different rhythms and musical cultures from far flung regions of the world.Want to hear the audio from the interview? Check it out (and FAR more) HERE.
Gianluca Tramontana: How did you get to Brazil?
Maga Bo: I arrived Brazil in 1999. I got interested in working with Brazilian music in Seattle. I’d been called in to work on a recording session with Jovino Santos Neito, who played with Hermeto Pasqual for many years. There were a number of other Brazilian musicians in Seatle. One of the musicians that I got to know was Jack Bush who was American guy who had spent quite a lot of time in Brazil and he asked me to play in his batucada. At the time I knew nothing about Brazilian music, but he passed on the basics to me.
Our Group was called Sambatuque. We played a lot of different rhythms, it wasn’t just samba but a lot of afro-brazilian rhythms. For me it was just the tip of the iceberg. You can teach a really basic thing on caixa but the thing that’s impossible to pass on is the swing. The only way I was able to understand it was by coming to Rio. When I first arrived I started playing with each and every bloco and samba school for a long long time and playing for hours and hours and hours until that just got burnt into my brain.
G.T.: Before you settled in Brazil, you traveled extensively. Was it a musical odyssey for you?
M.B: Very much so. One of my first trips, when I was eighteen, was to Jamaica because I loved me some dub bass. I studied ethnomusicology in college and spent a year in Vienna. [Then] I had a short vacation in Egypt where I ended up meeting a bunch of Sudanese guys and at some point got to know Sudan. After I finished college I spent a year and a half traveling from Cairo to Cape Town and back up to Nairobi, just experiencing all of those different places and cultures and musics and foods and languages along the way.
G.T.: Were you traveling with drum sticks?
M.B: Traveling with drum sticks but maybe more so traveling with a small cassette recorder.
G.T.: I guess if you want to get serious about percussion, you have to move to Brazil or Africa. You can’t stay in Seattle.
M.B: When I started working with Brazilian music in Seattle I did study some West African drumming for a couple of years, but I think what was more attractive for me was Afro-Brazilian. Jamaican music had a really strong draw to me but it didn’t feel like it had the same type of percussive roots like Afro-Brazilian drumming to me. Although there are a million different styles of music and rhythms in Brazil, it felt a little more homogenous than African music. African music is super regionalized, I don’t know if anybody knows how many different languages are in Africa. There are fifty-five countries and within each of those countries there are many many, many different languages so it’s obviously super deep and very profound. I don’t know if it was daunting to me or that Brazilian music was more accessible.
G.T.: Your new CD is called Quilombo Do Futuro. What does that mean?
M.B.: Quilombos were communities established by run-aways and freed slaves in colonial Brazil. They were generally in isolated areas where they could live their lives the way they wanted to. While these communities were started by Afro-Brazilians there were also indigenous people and there were Europeans [who lived there.] It was a democratic zone.
G.T.: Could Quilombo also be a state of mind?
M.B.: Which is why I decided to [use it as] the title. Afro-Brazilian music has suffered oppression for hundreds of years now. If you go back in history there are many instances of drums being banned, capoeira being prohibited, samba being prohibited and many things related to these musics. Nowadays we have ‘Funky Proibido,’ so there are many instances of baile funk which are prohibited by law. So I wanted to make a reference to that. With Afro-Brazilian music and traditional music it’s a difficult situation to maintain these cultures, so this is cultural resistance in many ways.
Also in this day and age revolution is going on in Arab countries and North Africa. If we look at Egypt and how the revolution has happened there, virtually all the communications have been happening via Twitter, Facebook, email and cellular phones. So this kind of resistance which before in the quilombos in the colonial era was a geographic thing, nowadays the geography doesn’t really matter any more because we can talk to people on the other side of the world just by pressing a button. The resistance movement is now no longer limited by geography. I wanted to bring all these things up and suggest these things in the title Quilombo do Futuro.
G.T.: Much of Quilombo sounds more like a roots CD than a straight-up DJ release. Was it your intent to make a roots CD?
M.B: No. Obviously roots, traditional afro-brazilian are very, very present. I didn’t really have an intention to make a conceptual record. It came about in a very organic matter. I just wanted to make music that I like and that comes from the heart; the kind of music that I was hearing in my head for a really long time and wasn’t hearing anyone else making. I did want to make something cohesive and make it sound like it all came from the same place.
G.T.: “No Balanço da Canoa” sounds like a traditional song.
M.B.: Rosângela Macedo, the singer, is originally from the North-east but lives in Sao Paolo. She’s very involved in regional music. She’s very involved in jongo and coco and very active in that. I’d say the singing melodies and style and content of the lyrics are more from the tradition of coco, but it’s her own version. In a lot of ways virtually all of the rhythms on the record are “pure” rhythms. We made this record in the city in a very urban place and our influences are very urban. I grew up listening to raga, dancehall, dub music and hip hop, and coming to Brazil and listening to samba and these kind of things – very urban musics. So for me these traditional and rural rhythms have come to me much later in life. I think for Rosângela, how she’s been influenced by these rhythms and styles is also from an urban point of view. Nothing is pure, by any means, but we want to maintain these traditions in the way that we know how and that is our sort of vision. So it’s our “pure” vision.
G.T.: I have a theory that all music is progressive music when it’s first made. It only becomes traditional with the passage of time.
M.B.: When we say “traditional music,” it’s used in a very loose kind of way. Generally it refers to songs in the public domain, which are probably nine times out of ten passed down orally, everybody knows them. My point of view is a little radical: I would include baile funk in that – you’ve got a lot of the same elements. Which is why I would say the computer has turned into the most universal folk instrument that exists. For example, the way most baile funk is made is that people are downloading loops and making samples of things that already exist. So you’ll find that a lot of times the sound quality is really terrible in some of these productions because they’re sampling something which was already sampled, which is a sample of something else, which is a sample of something else. So you’ve got multiple generations of sampling going on, which is exactly what happens with traditional musics. Nowadays you might call it progressive music but it’s very much in the vein of traditional music.
I’m a huge science fiction fan and there’s this book called Neuromancer by William Gibson, where the earth is uninhabitable and everyone has to live on spaceships. There’s one spaceship which is a colony of Rastafarians. Each chapter deals with a different set of characters. Chapter 9 opens up with, “The strains of dub bass wafted through the space ship.” And I thought if Rastafarians and nyabinghi culture are existing in the twenty-fifth century and they’re traveling around on spaceships and they’re still playing nyabinghi and singing the same songs and maybe these drums they’re playing are electronic drums and they’ve got their space echo going on and their dub siren, and that’s become part of the tradition, then why wouldn’t these Afro-Brazilian rhythms go through the very same process? Which I think they are – independently of my record, they’re going through this process. There is traditional urban culture and it’s younger than some of these rural cultures and some of these rhythms that were born in quilombos – which is another reason I wanted to use the title Quilombo Do Futuro – because essentially all of these rhythms had their origins in quilombos. It’s a process of these traditions warping and adapting themselves to modern society and modern time.
G.T.: You do remixes. In your remix of Luisa Maita sounds more subdued. It’s the opposite of how most producers would approach a remix.
M.B.: I wanted to add a bit more complexity to the rhythm than what they were working with. I think they were expecting a little more electronic and clubby. While I’m working with acoustic elements, I work with it on a very subtle level. To get super nerdy, I use Warp Engine a lot. My goal is to work with these acoustic, humanly played rhythms and essentially force them on to the grid. So then I can put electronic elements in, so I can work with it on an electronic level for a big sound system. I can have a kick drum with more impact to it that fills up more space but at the same time maintain the swing of the original playing. It’s like rock climbing where you put in a carabiner in the rock to hold the rope that anchors it in. Normally on beat one of the measure, although that can actually really make a kind of depth and power to the rhythm and the mix, and add a timbre of the sound that doesn’t exist. But if you listen to it, there are a lot of sound effects and a lot of electronic stuff in there; but I wanted it to be subtle, where it’s not so in-your-face electronic.
G.T.: So what are your plans?
M.B.: I’m concentrating on my live band – we’re presenting Quilombo Do Futuro live. There are six of us: laptop, percussion and vocals.
G.T.: You can jam on a laptop?
G.T.: If you get caught up in the moment…?
M.B.: You can. It brings me back to my dub roots, because playing live I like to work with a lot different elements and work with them in dub style, bringing things in and out, dubbing things out, working with effects, creating spaces, creating an arrangement on the fly….
G.T.: Sounds good! Thanks!